Man faces prison for attempting to take bird feathers

A natural salt lake, the namesake of the Sal del Rey wildlife preserve that forms part of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge system, is shown in this file photograph from 2013. (Dina Arevalo | [email protected])

McALLEN — An Edinburg man is facing time in federal prison on charges that he allegedly tried to take bird feathers and other objects from Sal del Rey, a federally protected wildlife area north of Edinburg.

Eduardo Leal is seen leaving the McAllen federal courthouse on Friday, Sept. 10. Leal stands accused of attempting to remove bird feathers and other objects from Sal del Rey north of Edinburg.
(Dina Arevalo | [email protected])

Eduardo Leal, 52, appeared in federal court Friday for a bench trial on the charges that he attempted to remove a number of objects from the natural salt lake and its surrounding habitat, including 31 bird feathers, a bird wing, animal bones, salt crystals and pieces of wood.

Leal allegedly attempted to take the objects during a visit to the refuge lands last October.

He was charged with two “petty offenses” — the first, a violation of the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act, and the second a violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. They were novel charges, as few petty offenses have been pursued in McAllen.

Leal made his initial appearance in February, when he indicated his desire to go to trial. In the following months, however, he appeared to have changed his mind, advising his public defender in June that he was willing to seek a plea deal.

Federal prosecutors were amenable to the idea and offered Leal a deal that would have him pay half the monetary fines of the citations against him — just a few hundred dollars — in exchange for his guilty plea.

But just one month later, Leal changed his mind again, this time asking the judge to decide his guilt or innocence.

That decision is what led to Leal’s appearance before U.S. Magistrate Judge J. Scott Hacker on Friday afternoon.

The trial didn’t take long — just under an hour. Prosecutors called only one witness — the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service park ranger who had encountered Leal last October as he was allegedly trying to leave the refuge with the cache of prohibited items.

The defense called no witnesses at all. Nor did Leal take the stand in his own defense.

Though Leal declined to take the plea deal that had been offered to him over the summer, the government did make some concessions for the trial. They agreed to drop the second charge against him, which involved the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and instead move forward with just the first charge, the violation of the wildlife refuge act.

Prosecutors argued that the statute prohibits objects, including parts of animals, to be removed from a federally protected area.

“No person shall disturb, injure, cut, burn, remove, destroy, or possess any real or personal property of the United States… or take or possess any fish, bird, mammal, or other wild vertebrate or invertebrate animals or part or nest or egg,” reads Title 16 of the U.S. Code, in part.

That portion of the law was read aloud in court by Assistant U.S. Attorney Devin Walker, and it was a point she returned to repeatedly as Leal’s defense attorney tried to argue that his client’s actions had not “materially” harmed the refuge.

The law on this issue is vague, argued Assistant Public Defender Christopher Gonzalez during his opening remarks.

“The question is whether Mr. Leal materially interfered” with the refuge, Gonzalez said.

He pointed to a resource management guide prepared by refuge officials nearly 25 years ago, the Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP).

The 124-page CCP lays out the management and conservation goals for all the tracts of land within the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, which stretches from Starr County in the west, to the banks of the Rio Grande at the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, to the Gulf of Mexico at the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge.

The valleywide refuge also includes Sal del Rey and several other salt lakes that straddle the boundary between Hidalgo and Willacy counties just west of U.S. Highway 281.

Gonzalez argued that the CCP allows refuge visitors to enjoy “compatible public access for wildlife observation,” particularly, “recreational uses … [that] are considered compatible when they do not ‘materially detract from or interfere with the purposes for which a refuge is established,’” Gonzalez said, reading from a footnote in the CCP.

And his client’s actions didn’t “materially detract” from the refuge.

“This is sort of coming down to an analytical framework,” Gonzalez said.

“We’re talking about a de minimis amount of salt,” he said of the sodium crystals Leal had placed in a small green box.

For Walker, the prosecutor, the law is very clear — there are no gray areas.

“This is not the legal standard this law is held to,” Walker said in her closing arguments.

“None of that allows for the taking of items. Not one feather. Certainly not 33 (sic) feathers. It would threaten the integrity of the refuge both for the wildlife and visitors,” she added a moment later.

After listening to both sides, the judge deferred making a finding until a future date. No verdict had been entered into the court record as of press time Monday.

As for Leal, he maintains his actions were not disrespectful to the refuge or its history. He was unaware of the law prohibiting the removal of items, he said outside the courthouse Friday.

An artist, he uses found objects to create his works of art, and after spending time with members of the Navajo Nation last year, he found a new respect for places like Sal del Rey.

“That place is a spiritual place. It’s a vortex of energy. It’s a treasure for the country,” Leal said.

When asked why he decided to pursue a trial instead of taking the plea deal, Leal said it’s for two reasons — because he believes in the American system of justice, and because of the principle of the matter.

“This has nothing to do with (disrespecting) the land, completely the opposite. But I guess it’s one of these things that need to happen to make a point break on what things are important, what things need to be changed,” he said.

According to the penalties laid out in the federal statute, Leal faces up to six months in federal prison, and up to $5,000 in fines.